WACO Convention's Agenda Packed
The Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) 2013 Convention & Trade Show, the 50th edition of which took place March 20-24 at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Convention Center in Stevens Point, has somehow developed into the nation’s largest state gathering of independent campground operators, drawing an impressive weekend crowd from several states.
In fact, WACO set records this year, reports Executive Director Lori Severson, by registering 642 attendees representing 127 parks, topping last year’s attendance of 595. “It’s up just a bit from past year’s on campgrounds,” Severson told Woodall’s Campground Management, “but way up on the number of people.”
How this particular show has been able to gain so much growth and momentum – providing a venue for 194 exhibitors in the process — apparently boils down to two basic techniques that, curiously, the campground arena itself tries to do at successful parks across the continent every day of the year: Get everybody engaged, and give them VIP treatment. The result is somewhat magical.
Severson says WACO has harnessed these two concepts for the benefit of the association and trade show through initiatives that keep costs down while increasing benefits received. Rather than raising prices for exhibit space or attendance, Severson said an essential lynchpin is finding different ways to pay for operations, such as certification and speaker sponsorships and openly encouraging attendees to buy from vendors instead of just browsing.
Thus, WACO becomes a buying show, which keeps the vendors happy enough to want to return each year.
“It’s both a personal appeal and a little incentive program,” says Severson. “On Saturday night after attendees have made all their purchases, they bring in their receipts and we draw from all the vendors at the show and the campground owners that are there. If the two match, they get $3,000. If we don’t pick a match, we continue to pick until somebody goes home with $1,500 cash in their pocket.”
At the same time, Severson says that WACO’s staff goes to extra lengths to take care of their vendors by doing little things like placing goodie bag in each booth and bigger things like negotiating for low prices at the host hotel. WACO provides plenty of help in carrying equipment in and setting up and hosts a vendor luncheon before the booths open and an appreciation dinner on Friday evening. “We know how it is,” she noted. “We’ve been there, done that. We do RV shows just like everyone does.”
With that kind of sales potential and that kind of treatment in mind, it’s no surprise that WACO’s trade show was oversubscribed this year. Fact is, the state trade group actually turned away about 15 companies for lack of space. Booth space is available on a first-come, first-served basis, Severson noted, except in the case of presenting sponsors, who are assured a spot at the trade show and may pick their locations.
About 15% of this year’s vendors were WACO first-timers, which Severson said is “unusual for us.”
As for WACO’s theories about engaging attendees, from the opening bell at 8 a.m. on Wednesday to the show’s close at noon on Sunday, attendees were offered several certification sessions, about 50 seminars, lunch and dinner presentations, auctions, entertainment — including casino night and a live country rock band performance — official organization meetings, Kids Kamp and, of course, plenty of time to shop among the vendor booths with four additional shopping hours this year because customers “couldn’t get it all in” last year.
A silent auction spanned three days of the convention before winners were announced, and a “scavenger hunt” enabled them to earn tickets for the drawing at the very end of the show for the grand prize — a golf cart. Tickets, in turn, were awarded for attending seminars, turning in course evaluations, participating in games, bringing items for auctions, purchasing from a vendor and several other tasks listed in the program.
Park Employees Benefit
Long story short, Severson credits this busy agenda with the rise in campground employee attendance. “I think a lot of the campground owners have found that it’s not only valuable just for the owners and managers,” she said, “but it’s also very valuable for the people that work there, the regular employees. They’ve found that they could split up a little better with the multiple sessions going on at once.
“One of the things we hear a lot is, ‘Oh, there’s so many good seminars, I don’t know which one to pick. Can’t you run them more than once?’ We don’t do that because we kind of like to leave them wishing for more. And that part has kind of worked. They bring more people then, and it works out better that way.”
Finding the right balance between work and play is, Severson said, key to keeping people involved and enjoying themselves – which, in turn, is crucial to making the show beneficial for attendees and lucrative for vendors.
“I was amazed at the number of people who started early for all the certifications, and we sort of got those out of the way first,” she explained. “And then the next day we had some lighter and more fun sessions. “We’re getting more and more vendors that actually participate in the events of the show (with the attendees). One of the things we’ve found is that sometimes you get more business done the more time you have to socialize and get to know each other. In our group particularly there’s a lot of camaraderie.
Given the record-breaking attendance numbers and feedback she’s received from both vendors and attendees, Severson predicts a robust 2013 for the campground industry – and fun times for their customers.